The lean blogosphere today has been atwitter with references to this morning's NPR story on organizing your life like a chef. It's a terrific story, and well worth the listen if kaizen is important to you, personally or professionally. Placing tools correctly, keeping things in order, creating standard work -- all of these ideas are embedded in what chefs call mise-en-place. When I was writing A Factory of One three years ago, my editor, Tom Ehrenfeld, pointed me to a terrific explanation of mise-en-place in Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential. In my view, mise-en-place is a perfect illustration of 5S done right.

Here's what I wrote in my book:

If you’ve never been to a restaurant kitchen, you’d be amazed at the contrast with the “front of the house” where you dine. It’s crazy back there, particularly during the lunch and dinner rushes. People are shouting and cursing, waiters, cooks, and “runners” are rushing through the kitchen trying to get orders out the door—it’s barely controlled chaos.

Except for one spot. The cook’s mise-en-place, the area where she organizes and arranges the ingredients she’ll be using that night. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain explains the importance of mise-en-place in Kitchen Confidential:

Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not f**k with a line cook’s “meez”—meaning their set-up, their carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, back-ups and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system—and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter—disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for back-up. I worked with a chef who used to step behind the line to a dirty cook’s station in the middle of the rush to explain why the offending cook was falling behind. He’d press his palm down on the cutting board, which was littered with peppercorns, spattered sauce, bits of parsley, breadcrumbs and the usual flotsam and jetsam that accumulates quickly on a station if not constantly wiped away with a moist side-towel. “You see this” he’d inquire, raising his palm so that the cook could see the bits of dirt and scraps sticking to his chef’s palm, “That’s what the inside of your head looks like now. Work clean!”

Want to know what 5S is, without resorting to all those difficult-to-pronounce Japanese words? It’s mise-en-place. (Of course, we’ve just substituted French for Japanese, so there may not be any advantage for you.) It’s your physical workspace and your information precisely laid out so that you can find anything with your eyes closed. It’s the clean well-ordered inside of your head so that you can stay on top of all the work your boss, colleagues, and customers are dumping on you. . . . Quite frankly, if a line cook during the dinner rush can keep his workspace organized, so can you.

If you think about 5S in this light, and see the connection to the way you manage your work and your time, you can avoid turning 5S into a L.A.M.E. exercise.

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